SEOUL, Jan. 31 (Yonhap) -- A 57-year-old housewife in Seoul makes an appointment to meet friends with a messenger application on her smartphone and listens to music via a streaming app. During the days leading up to the presidential election last month, she received numerous video and text messages from the candidates and forwarded some of them onto her friends.
This is a completely new experience for her, who has been close to computer illiterate all her life, rarely ever using even email.
"It was possible because of the smartphone. Since I began using the smartphone two years ago, I've become closer to my friends and the scope of my contacts has also widened," said Son Kyeong-sun.
With an easy-to-use touch-screen interface, the smartphone is introducing an increasing number of older Koreans to the world of computers, the internet and social network services (SNS). Many of this generation who had not dared to venture into Facebook or Twitter on a PC are now surfing SNS on their smartphones.
According to the Korea Communications Commission (KCC), the percentage of mobile-phone users in their 50s with smartphones jumped to 46.8 percent in 2012 from 9.5 percent in 2011, which means one in two 50-somethings in Korea are now using smartphones. The increase in smartphones has also brought about an increase in the proportion of internet users in the same age group, from 57.4 to 60.1 percent over the same period.
A participant at the 2012 Smart Senior Festival in Seoul shows off her skills playing a mobile game.
This trend is expected to grow even more rapidly this year because of the peer pressure non-users are feeling, as well as the fact that feature phones are now becoming obsolete by their smarter counterparts in Korea.
Ju Il-yeong, a 54-year-old housewife in Suwon, just south of Seoul, still uses a feature phone but is seriously considering switching to a smartphone. She said that without a smartphone she feels marginalized and excluded from friends, left out on their latest news and plans, all because they keep in touch with messenger apps on their smartphones.
"Without a smartphone, I feel like I am becoming outdated," she said.
The increasing use of smartphones by the older generation has already proved that it's not just about changes to their lifestyle.
This age group, which includes baby boomers born between 1955 and 1963 after the Korean War (1950-53), is claiming a larger proportion of the total population and the country's electorate. During the 18th presidential election in December, the number of eligible voters in their 50s exceeded 7.78 million, which is 19.2 percent of total voters, compared to 15.4 and 12.9 percent respectively in the 2007 and 2002 presidential elections.
Political analysts agree that the record high turnout of voters in their 50s in the last presidential election -- estimated to have been about 89.9 percent based on exit polls -- was partially because of their growing use of messenger apps and SNS. Their votes held sway over the election outcome, with more than 62 percent casting ballots for conservative ruling party candidate Park Geun-hye, who defeated her liberal rival Moon Jae-in by a margin of 3.6 percent to become the nation's first female president.
"The text and video messages sent to me during the election did not affect my choice but certainly made me decide that I should cast a vote," said Son.
Their growing demographic presence in society also bears significant economic implications. Although their use of smartphones is largely limited to free instant messenger services like Kakao Talk at the moment, they will eventually learn to navigate the devices' more advanced features like mobile payment and barcode scanning, which will considerably affect how they shop.
Shin Young-jin, 58, already knows her way around internet shopping, thanks to her daughter who taught her about coupons and other special offers available to online shoppers. Snowed in recently at her home in northern Seoul, she decided to learn how to buy groceries with her smartphone.
"This is part of the fun of having a smartphone. No need to even turn on the computer," she said, waving her handset adorned in a bright pink case.
An elderly man uses his smartphone to take photo of an ad for available jobs during a job fair for senior citizens in southern city of Gwangju. (Yonhap file photo)
The emotional perk is not small, either. In many cases, learning to use the new technology has helped people in their 50s or older, especially the computer illiterate and computer phobic, feel younger and gain self-confidence.
A 51-year-old man, a self-admitted IT-phobic, said he had felt somewhat estranged whenever younger people in his office talked of Twitter or Facebook. But the smartphone helped him solve that problem. With Kakao Talk, he now freely exchanges messages and pictures with those he felt technologically isolated from. "The smartphone has become an important means of communication with younger people," said the man with family name Kim.
Another 58-year-old housewife in Seoul said she has become closer to her son thanks to the smartphone and is now more interested in computers. When she first purchased the smartphone, her son taught her the basics.
"Since then, we are talking to each other more frequently, and I still often ask him questions," she said. Using the device has also given her a wider knowledge of computers, for which she feels proud about.
The challenge to the new-found freedom is, coincidentally, age. Presbyopia, a progressive condition that diminishes the eye's ability to focus, is causing many middle-aged people and older to hesitate in joining the ranks of the smartphone literate.
The 51-year-old Kim said it makes him sad when his eyes get tired from using his smartphone.
But not to worry; Smartphones are ever evolving with bigger and better screens, and Kim is thinking of switching to one of these models in the near future.